Lighting a FUSE to Ignite Learning
The launch of Chicago Learning Exchange (CLX) builds upon more than nine years of work encouraging innovation in learning that has reached thousands of our city’s youth, engaged ~500 educators, and supported more than 200 youth-serving organizations.
Since we began building a community of educators and organizations via the Hive Chicago Network in 2009, we have witnessed the emergence, evolution, and growth of both individuals and organizations across the network that demonstrate the importance and power of a connected community.
The story of FUSE and its Program Director, Henry Mann, illustrates how peer professional learning networks cultivate and support practitioners and their organizations. CLX sat down with Henry to learn about his journey as a member of CLX and capture his perspective on the power of the CLX community.
Tell me about FUSE. What is FUSE and how did it become engaged with the CLX Community?
FUSE is an interest-driven program that ignites and nurtures STEAM exploration through innovative challenges in a studio environment. FUSE studios were piloted in 2011 in libraries, summer camps, and afterschool programs across Chicago with seed funding from the MacArthur Foundation. The work was led by Reed Stevens, a Learning Sciences professor at Northwestern University and was originally designed to focus on the out-of-school time (OST) space. But word-of-mouth about the program spread quickly to the in-school space, providing FUSE with an opportunity to reach more students. This year (2018-19), we expect over 26,000 students to take a FUSE class at one of the 190+ schools implementing the program across 18 states and Helsinki, Finland.
How did you get involved with FUSE?
I wasn’t a part of the team when FUSE was founded. I joined FUSE in Fall 2012 as a digital media production intern. I had a background in youth development and digital media work and was excited to leverage and integrate those experiences. So, I applied and got the position. From there, I worked up to where I am now, the Program Director of FUSE.
How did you get involved with the CLX Community, which was then known as the Hive Chicago Network?
The first time I became involved with the Hive was March 2011. I was working with Project Spitfire at the time, which was a project of CeaseFire that used music production to help young people break free of the cycle of gangs, drugs, and violence. I was curious about other efforts in Chicago that were using digital media with teens and reached out to Christina Timmons from YOUmedia. We connected and she invited me to attend a Hive meetup.
Through the Hive, I started to learn about the different youth movements and themes in Chicago. I attended a few meetups but didn’t really get engaged in the community until I joined FUSE in 2012.
There is incredible value to seeing and feeling the energy, passion, and investment from amazing people from across the city focused on a common goal.
What stood out most to me about the Hive community was that everyone was working towards the same goal. Even if you’re doing one kind of youth work and someone else is taking a completely different approach, you are both connected through your efforts to better serve kids from across the city. There is incredible value to seeing and feeling the energy, passion, and investment from amazing people from across the city focused on a common goal. The community was and is inspiring and motivating.
Tell me about the connection between FUSE and the Hive.
FUSE started as a very informal organization. In 2011, we were a pilot program funded through MacArthur. Initially, FUSE’s mission was completely aligned with the Hive because we were focused on providing inspiring STEM spaces and experiences in the out-of-school time (OST) space.
The Hive provided space for FUSE to make connections with organizations with content and subject matter expertise that we didn’t have. The Hive Fund also funded FUSE programs and collaborations with other members of the community to innovate and expand our offerings. Over the years, FUSE has partnered with members like the Museum of Science and Industry to help us design new challenges. We also secured innovation funding from the Hive Fund to collaborate with the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) to create the Dream Home challenge. We wanted a challenge that utilized 3D software. But, we didn’t have the expertise, so we partnered with CAC. Our goal wasn’t to teach students about architecture, but to get kids excited to use the tools to do architecture-like work. To this day, Dream Home is one of the most popular challenges across FUSE.
FUSE is now in ~200 schools across the country and the world. In a short period of time, we transformed from an informal to a pretty formalized program. As FUSE has grown and our focus has shifted towards the in-school space, we aren’t engaged in as many partnerships within the CLX community. Nevertheless, I remained amazed and inspired by the community of practitioners who take the interests of young people so seriously and who are always looking to see what technologies were being effectively used across the network. The CLX community remains a valuable resource to FUSE in that respect.
What is one of the most valuable lessons you have learned from your engagement with the CLX community?
Talk to everybody. We have this myth that great ideas are the brainchild of a single person, the founders' myth. What I’ve seen is that no idea emerges or exists in isolation. The same is true for programs; they aren’t developed in a vacuum and they don’t function in isolation.
Within the CLX community, everyone is working towards the same goal of better serving the youth of Chicago. That’s what’s great about CLX; it makes that collective effort visible.
Within the CLX community, everyone is working towards the same goal of better serving the youth of Chicago. That’s what’s great about CLX; it makes that collective effort visible. You never know what synergy there is between the work and ideas you have and the work and ideas that someone else has. You never know who might be able to provide you with a resource you never knew you needed or a resource that you should explore. There aren’t that many spaces where you can share, learn, and explore in a non-competitive and collaborative space like CLX.
What advice do you have for organizations or individual practitioners working with a promising, emerging program? How can they best leverage CLX to move from concept to implementation and success?
You have to balance the idea of seeing yourself as an independent practitioner or organization without forgetting that you’re part of a movement. Be proud of your idea and what you can uniquely offer to the movement, but don’t forget that you’re part of something bigger and there are people who can and want to support you.
Another key lesson that we have learned is that we can’t be afraid to say no. Sometimes you have to say no to partnerships because they will be a distraction from your mission. Talk to everyone, but you don’t have to partner with everyone. Consider each partnership carefully. Think about what each partnership will bring to the table and what each organization brings to the other. This is something we’ve had to learn through experience.
Chicago Learning Exchange is focused on inspiring, supporting, and equipping digital-aged learners and leaders to close Chicago’s opportunity gap. FUSE has excelled at equipping educators to bring FUSE studios to life and inspire learners to explore and engage in STEM challenges.
How does FUSE engage educators and leaders to remake learning? What experiences are you creating or techniques are you using? What’s the secret sauce for successful professional development?
It all comes back to human-centered design. Whenever we are designing professional development for teachers, we apply human-centered design principles. First and foremost, we practice empathy. We ask ourselves, “what is the perspective of a teacher in a PD workshop?” “Are they here voluntarily?” Do they know why they are walking through the door?” Our goal is to get people's buy-in by understanding their perspective.
For teachers, anything that is not actionable, relevant or immediately useful is going to decrease your ability to reach your audience.
Next, we focus on making the content relevant. For teachers, anything that is not actionable, relevant or immediately useful is going to decrease your ability to reach your audience.
I work within the context of a university so research is at the center of everything we do. But for teachers, it’s not necessary to get into conversations about research in a professional development session. As we design, we ask ourselves, “what can they do with the information?” If the answer isn’t actionable and relevant to their practice, we don’t include it.
At FUSE, we also design our professional development sessions to help adults - teachers, coaches, administrators - understand what the program feels like from the perspective of those that will be in it. We work really hard to craft the first part of our training to put participants into the shoes of students entering a FUSE studio for the first time. We want them to experience what it feels like to raise your hand to ask a question and the teacher doesn’t answer it directly. We don’t tell them what FUSE is about - we show them.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your experience working with educators implementing FUSE?
In this work, it’s important to never assume you’ve got it right. Teachers have an incredibly difficult job. They are doing work that I could never do. FUSE works because teachers make it happen for their students. If something isn't working or resonating for them, it’s not their problem; it's ours. We always collect feedback, not as a pleasantry, but as a challenge for our team to improve. If we have a couple of 3’s on a survey with a scale of 1 to 5, we look for something valid in those critiques even if most of the responses are 5’s. We believe you have to be willing to challenge yourself and not just look for self-affirming evidence.
Too often, program creators and curriculum designers think of themselves as the master of the programs they create. It’s critical that we honor and really acknowledge that we are only part of the picture.
Recently, I was at a talk by Charles Best who founded Donors Choose. He talked about utilizing the frontline expertise of teachers. That really resonated with me. Too often, program creators and curriculum designers think of themselves as the master of the programs they create. It’s critical that we honor and really acknowledge that we are only part of the picture.
In developing professional development for teachers, it is so very important to acknowledge that what you’re delivering is only part of the picture. The way your program is designed will change as it hits the real world and that should be recognized, honored, evaluated and observed. That change is an important thing that should not be discounted.